Why Journalism Awards Are Like Dog Shows


Danny as a potential Wisconsin dog show winner.

By Jack Limpert

Another February and I’m reading through a stack of 45 magazines for a journalism contest. It always feels good to be asked to be a judge, it’s easy to say yes, and then you realize it’s a lot of work. But you remember in past years sending in your magazine’s contest entries and hoping that the judges would actually read the stories and appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears that went into each issue.

Another February and I’m also watching the Westminster Dog Show, vowing that this will be the last year. Those aren’t real dogs—most look like they came out of a toy factory. Can’t someone come up with a dog show—maybe set in Wisconsin—where the owners look like they drink beer and the judges look they go hunting in the fall and the dogs look like they haven’t spent the last 12 hours in a beauty parlor?

Danny, our golden retriever, is 15 this year and now just ambles along to the park—no more chasing squirrels or tennis balls. Likely his last year for the Westminster Dog Show, too.

Reading those 45 magazines and swearing off Westminster seems reason enough for a shortened re-run of this post from last February.
Once again I sat with Danny, our golden retriever, to watch the end of the Westminster Dog Show and once again the winner was a cute little dog—an affenpinscher, a breed described as a terrier-like toy dog. “Danny,” I said, “you’re  smart, well-behaved, and popular in the neighborhood, but you’re never going to win a dog show.”

Our neighborhood’s two most popular breeds, golden retrievers and labs, have never won the Westminster Dog Show. The judges seem to like dogs like affenpinschers, described as “active, stubborn, and quite hard to housebreak.” Just the kind of dog you don’t want to live with.

I judged a lot of journalism contests over the years and the tendency among judges was to reward entries that were different, cutting edge, not the same old good stuff. Many a time I heard a judge say, “It’s great but other magazines also do that kind of thing.”

The tendency to reward new, different, and risky seems especially true when judging design—and you might be surprised at how much design plays a decisive role in all categories  of  journalism contests. Judges are looking at maybe 50 entries and design that looks like you haven’t tried very hard, that doesn’t look cutting edge, can move an entry to the loser’s end of the table.

At The Washingtonian, trying to come up with stories to win contests was never on our radar screen. We had a publisher, Phil Merrill, who was smart at getting at the heart of things, at figuring out how to make a publication a success. He understood that journalism award judges rarely reward what’s most appreciated by readers.

We won awards but they had no impact on readership or the bottom line—the bottom line being subscribers renewing their subscriptions, new readers buying the magazine on the newsstand, those numbers providing a growing editorial budget and the ability to hire talented reporters and writers and giving them the time and money to do good work. Early in my career I worked at several struggling publications. I always found strong circulation numbers  and the ability to hire top talent  to do good journalism was a lot more fun and rewarding than struggling. Or winning awards.


  1. […] Why Journalism Awards are Like Dog Shows. He has a point, actually. […]

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